Did you see the hand dryer petri dish? Our response to the future of lazy journalism
“Evaluation of bacterial contaminants found on unused paper towels and possible postcontamination after handwashing: A pilot study”
Maybe this headline should be out there too? This is the title of an actual scientific pilot study that concludes that toxic bacteria are located in unused paper towels. More about this can be read about later in the article. But why is this information not publicised in the press, social media or blog posts? Because it doesn’t cause as much sensualisation for likes and shares. It’s not “sexy” enough to cause a stir.
We start this article looking at how lazy journalism is contributing to fake news. We then look to explain a more balanced view of different hand drying methods so that consumers can make informed decisions on how they dry their hands.
Lazy journalism and fake news
What is fake news?
"false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting." - Collins Dictionary
In other words, false or misinformed information leading to excitement and interest by lots of people via viral news stories.
Yes, there is some evidence of things growing in a petri dish from a viral news story circulating, however the way some media outlets have reported this leans towards fake news with such headlines as below and introductions that straight away lead to horror, sensationalism and misinformation:
We will discuss later in the post what these bacteria are actually more likely to be with true scientific reasoning. Yes, you are safe to use hand dryers as you will find out.
The press plays a vital role in democracy, holding the authorities and established order to account. Its purpose is outlined in the American constitution. But now we live in the bizarre and unchartered world of fake news. Elections are being won and lost of the basis of fake stories created by online bots. It is considered such a serious trend, that the UK have set up a National Security Unit to tackle its potential detrimental effects.
The president of the free world hints that the established press, the gold star press packed with highly trained, professional journalists is apparently now corrupt and working for the powers that be. According to Trump, the likes of the New York times and Washington Post that held the US government to account over Vietnam and exposed Nixon, work for some unknown world order.
At Intelligent Facility Solutions we value intellectual and well researched journalism over off the cuff, wild accusations and ludicrous fake news. The value of the press is being undermined and used as a vehicle to destabilise the minds of the masses and make us more susceptible to the messages the powerful wish to promote.
A recent example hit our industry. The paper towel companies have been relentlessly commissioning unrealistic, unscientific studies as a means of undermining the year on year growth of electric hand dryers. Big players like Dyson and Mitsubishi have entered what was traditionally a SME market and strategically promoted the huge environmental benefits of dryers over paper towels. All the benefits of hand dryers over paper towels are so clear and tangible that it has been a procession for Dyson.
The paper towel companies have focused on what we can’t see and used scaremongering stories about germs. A good picture of some nice mould will get everyone scared about using a hand dryer if promoted in the wrong way, but this is meaningless propaganda.
Dyson’s response to flawed research about the germ spreading capabilities of hand dryers
- Is one drying method better than another for making sure bacteria is removed from the hands? No statistical difference found between cloth towels, paper towels, warm air hand dryers and leaving to dry naturally for removal of bacteria from hands
While it’s hard to say whether the recent viral post showing bacteria cultivated in a petri dish has somehow been funded by the paper towel industry, what is clear is that it offers no scientific evidence of anything other than that good and bad bacteria exists all around us, in every location you place yourself, which hopefully most of us already knew!
The fact the press is prepared to circulate such poorly researched scaremongering shows how lazy online news, put together by freelance bloggers now is. Its links to the traditional news outlets is damaging the reputation of the press as a whole. It’s a totally unrealistic hope but we long for a return to a regulated, high quality press that researches its stories and presents balanced argument, whether it’s about the products we use or the politics of our leaders.
What has prompted this response?
Journalists need to provide facts and sources of evidence from creditable sources so that the public are better informed and not lead to believe “disinformation” and “misinformation”. Spin, lies and deceit have of course been around forever and are not a new phenomenon throughout the world.
However, this BBC article outlines the history of where social media and online channel’s have been manipulated to gain an advantage in some way. In other words, people willing to make things up or spin the truth are being used to gain financially and politically. It is so much easier to do now with how stories can go viral at a phenomenal rate and target the masses of all demographics. There have been calls for the regulation of social media as a result due to threats to democracy and free debate.
There are a number of newspapers that have sensationalised this story about “germs” growing in a petri dish after being in the “area” of a hand dryer. These include the Metro and Mail. Fortunately, most have balanced comments from readers suggesting the flaws in the research and playing down the scaremongering.
We applaud Global News Canada for actually getting a scientist to comment in their article.
The Global News article states:
“While the photo may seem alarming, Jason Tetro, a Canadian microbiologist and a visiting scientist at the University of Guelph, says people shouldn’t get caught up in the hype of the photo.
“[It] looks like from that whole three-minute dryer experience, she picked up a total of about five or six bacteria or fungal spores, most likely from the environment around her rather than from the dyer itself,” he says. “It just looks cross because they were growing for 48 hours on very rich media, which is enough to make some pretty giant colonies.”
With that being said, however, Tetro says that any surface has the ability to carry bacteria and fungal spores, so this shouldn’t be a surprise.
“Most of them won’t be harmful in the concentrations she found in the washroom,” he says. “Remember, it’s not the size of the colony that matters, just the number found.”
In order for the bacteria and fungi to be truly harmful, Tetro says the plate would have to be covered with colonies, but it is not as there are only a few that have overgrown.”
It goes on to conclude:
“Bottom line: don’t buy into the hype – there is no reason to worry about using hand dryers, Tetro says.”
The key to this post is that we are sick and tired of lazy journalism in all industries, which have no scientific evidence or any report of a balanced discussion. Just a picture plastered on social media, with no evidence of what is actually there, then just go with the flow and promote what people want to hear or let them make their own conclusions based on generic interpretation. A picture paints a thousand words as they say, yet words are needed sometimes to give unbiased press and help its readers make informed decisions based on fact.
One of the more balanced stories comes from Signe Dean, deputy editor and a science and health journalist with a passion for debunking stories at the ScienceAlert. She has produced an article which was written to stop any fear amongst the public, and states that the type of agar used in the “experiment” is for culturing yeasts and fungi while inhibiting the growth of most bacteria, so it's possible there aren't even any pathogenic bacteria (e.g. the ones actually harmful to humans) visual in the dish, just a load of free growing moulds! Not every bacterium can actually cause infection or disease in humans anyway, so whether it is there or not, it may not affect us in any way.
All bacteria and mould in a petri dish will look disgusting, they would never win a beauty contest. However, we have good bacteria and bad bacteria. As well, we have built up a resistance to some bad bacteria because it is literally everywhere. Is any area truly sterile? Unless it is a location in a hospital where it is paramount to not add bacteria to already weakened immune systems.
We have shown in a previous post that the household bathroom towel and your clothes can carry significant amounts of germs and bacteria, yet we still use them and don’t walk around naked!
For those that shout that “this is why I use paper towels over a hand dryer”
It is certainly up to each individual what they choose to dry their hands. There are a number of reasons why people choose one over the other. There are pros and cons to all methods. People will jump on the band waggon, consumers and companies alike, to back up false allegations that one method is more hygienic than the other. Especially when they have a vested interest in one method over another.
We are of course biased towards hand dryers, however any comparisons we make are based on fact, not speculation.
Why was the following not mentioned in any press article about the petri dish to help inform the reader of a balanced view? Because it wouldn’t make it as shareworthy, right? If both methods contain a few bacteria, that is found everywhere anyway, then its just boring and doesn’t produce any conflict.
The paper towel pilot study – germs live in unused paper towels
McCusky Gendron L., Trudel L., Moineau S., Duchaine C. (2012). Evaluation of bacterial contaminants found on unused paper towels and possible postcontamination after handwashing: A pilot study. American Journal of Infection Control, 40 (2) , pp. e5-e9. Available at: http://www.ajicjournal.org/article/S0196-6553(11)00967-9/abstract [Accessed 16/02/2018]
This is a pilot study under true scientific conditions - only an insight from an abstract but still more information produced than just an image of something we are not told exactly what is growing. It doesn't state what actual types of the groups of bacteria were. But still gives more evidence than a picture of a petri dish!
This is just from the abstract, and yes the full paper should be read to get a more in depth analysis. It is here mainly just to give an indication that there are 2 sides to every story yet lazy journalism overlooks a balanced view. We are not suggesting that paper towels are harmful in any way, we are just stating that there is evidence out there of other hand drying methods carrying bacteria.
People use both types of hand drying method every day! The fact that the grown bacteria can actually be good bacteria or bacteria that cannot cause disease in humans wouldn’t get in the way of a good story would it?
Our point here is that a lot of fuss has been made off a simple photo. Less information than a scientific abstract, and still some journalists have run away with a fairy tale viral story.
- 6 different unused paper towel brands were tested
- Between 100 and 100,000 colony-forming units per gram of unused paper towels were isolated from the different paper towel brands. These included the following:
- Bacillus genus (83.0%)
- Some examples of this group of bacteria cause food poisoning, and are found in anthrax and antibiotics https://www.britannica.com/science/bacillus-bacteria
- Paenibacillus (15.6%)
- Some examples of this group cause infections https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5484988/
- Exiguobacterium (1.6%),
- Clostridium (0.01%)
- "An anaerobic bacterium of a large genus that includes many pathogenic species, e.g. those causing tetanus, gas gangrene, botulism, and other forms of food poisoning." https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/clostridium
- Paper towels made from recycled fibres harboured between 100- to 1,000-fold more bacteria than the virgin wood pulp brand
- Bacteria were easily transferred to disposable nitrile gloves when drying hands with paper towels
- Bacillus genus (83.0%)
“This pilot study demonstrated that a large community of culturable bacteria, including toxin producers, can be isolated from unused paper towels and that they may be transferred to individuals after handwashing. This may have implications in some industrial and clinical settings as well as in immunocompromised individuals.”
It should be noted that the full paper has not been sort to identify the actual types of Bacillus, Paenibacillus, Exiguobacterium and Clostridium found and the examples given above are purely there to give indications of the types of bacteria found.
Some studies claiming hand dryers are more germ ridden have been researched by universities funded by the paper towel industry. They are actually proven to be flawed and there to scaremonger, just like this topic of germs in a petri dish was. When you read any article that relates to a scientific topic, you need to ask yourself why a scientist hasn’t been consulted to prove or counterprove the theory being put forward. Is there a hidden agenda?
In this instance, poor journalism has been used to put a catchy heading above a perceived germ ridden picture. Straight away to the untrained eye this causes a negative reaction and feeds individuals misconceptions. In some of the articles, where are the scientists interviewed to give a balanced view? Fortunately, there are articles out there in the press that have sought such information and shown that there is no need to worry about public health. Whether you use hand dryers or paper towels, it is very unlikely if you are in good health, that one or the other is going to make you sick.
Do some journalists now solely rely on what has gone viral and just because it is popular run with it without providing sound evidence? Fair enough, if there is sufficient interest then sure write about it. That is great as it does provide stories of what people actually want. But don't just run with it without facts and substance.
Do your research, provide a balanced view and base your stories on fact. This is a science we are talking about, things can be proven and unproven, it is not a reality program you are commenting on, it is in fact something worth getting right.
At IFS we are proud to be experts in our field. We consider the facts, do the research and study the data to provide our customers with the most up to date information available. This allows us to be a trusted source of knowledge which we love to share with others. Everything we do is performed with integrity, it’s a shame other industries occasionally do not follow suit. It doesn’t benefit any one in the long run.Back to blog